Hollywood began as a small town business, one of many across the world, notable for its Californian sunshine that benefitted not just the orange groves but the making of movies when lighting could be expensive. From these modest beginnings grew a major industry, as by 1916 there was a fresh demand for their product with the First World War providing a huge audience among the American soldiers, though just as the money began to flood in, so did the potential for scandal. It was not known by the wider public that orgies were a regular feature of Hollywood get-togethers, and the more debauched the better: it seemed the more successful they became, the worse their behaviour.
Hollywood Babylon is of course better known as a book, two books in fact, but back in 1971 underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger had only penned one, and it quickly became a must read among the hip crowd of the day as it revealed, or purported to reveal, what the stars of yesteryear and the powerful people connected with them got up to behind closed doors. It was a bestseller, no matter that it was clear historical accuracy was not its strong point, it got enough right to be judged not merely a source of the best vintage cinema gossip around, but confirmation that to get ahead in the movie business you had to sell your soul, and even your body, to make it to the top.
All those suspicions may or may not have been true (though it is doubtful that at least half the stuff in Anger's tome was), but if it sounded like a good story, it was worth repeating. This documentary was an unofficial version of the text, a cash-in that mixed acres of stock footage with re-enactments of what had been supposed by Anger on the page, and though he had plenty of photographs to illustrate the salacious rumours and on the record facts, none of these were to be seen here. Mostly you got a bunch of skinflick performers ("The beautiful people of Hollywood!" according to the credits) dressing up in vintage clothes, or more often taking them off, and acting out what may or may not have occurred.
As ever, Roscoe Arbuckle, or Fatty to his once-adoring public, got the short end of the stick when he was depicted by a not bad looky-likey as raping the woman he was accused of killing with a champagne bottle, charges that were not only spurious, but dismissed by the jury when they came to trial as a moral panic of lies whipped up by the press to sell newspapers. That was important to remember, especially in a tawdry little item like this, the production parroting various tales that had been crafted to appeal to the worst of readers' curiosities, all to make a fast buck, no more than all those scandal sheets and self-appointed guardians of morality in the media had been doing for decades.
Therefore it was amusing to see one of the worst offenders, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, shown as a cuckolded murderer, even if they chickened out of using his name, as was the case with a few of these stories. Charlie Chaplin was still alive at the time and presumably had access to a lawyer or ten, so the bit about his proclivities for young teens was presented anonymously, though easy to guess from his appearance in archive footage earlier on. Mostly this was a smarmy lecture on the content of Anger's book that attempted but did not achieve that respect for classic movie making mixed with sordid exposes characterising his writings, and the amount of naked flesh, male and female, made it all too obvious where the project's interest lay. Nowadays you can make your own hardcore with body doubles and celebrities' actual faces with the right software, and you imagine this lot would have jumped at that opportunity. Uschi Digard as Marlene Dietrich was about the yardstick here: pretty ridiculous. Music by Allan Alper.